Thank you Sayeeda, and thank you for all that you and people like Jo Hiller and Az Chowdury have done to promote social action in our party.
Three years ago a conference like this would have been unimaginable.
There’s a really impressive mix of people here in the audience - from the Big Issue to the Big Lottery Fund.
The line-up of speakers on the panels has been excellent too.
Thank you all for coming today.
I’d like to say a few words about what kind of social action projects we’re doing as a party - and also why we’re doing it.
But the first question has to be: what is it?
We could get into an academic discussion about the definition of social action, but I think it essentially means getting up off your backside, rolling up your sleeves, and doing something positive to strengthen society.
And in the last four years the Conservative Party has pioneered the idea that politicians and political parties should actively lead social change by leading and taking part in social action projects.
When we started doing these projects you can probably guess what the critics were saying:
“It’s all about PR, you’re just trying to put a caring, sharing sheen on to your party”.
In a way I can understand their cynicism.
People are suspicious of political parties as it is and no other party in the UK is trying anything like this.
But just look at all the good work that has been done since then.
WHAT WE ARE DOING
The conference social action projects were not “flash in the pan” photo opportunities – they’ve been sustained and they’ve made a real difference.
And there are now around 150 Conservative-led projects up and down the country.
I want to pay tribute, today, to the extraordinary range of social action projects.
From Mark Garnier’s mentoring programme in Kidderminster, which is one of many mentoring programmes we have working with schools to inspire kids to aim high…
… to Mel Stride’s environmental project in Devon, that encourages people to get involved in cleaning up their communities…
… to Ben Jeffreys’ sports project in Cheadle, where he’s getting young lads off the streets and into rugby teams.
There’s also the big summer projects we do as a party.
This year – as with the last couple of years – around a hundred activists, MPs and candidates are going again to Rwanda to work on a number of projects, from teaching English to training nurses.
This year the project will expand to include a group of lawyers working on legal reform in Sierra Leone, and there’s also going to be a smaller project in Srebrenica.
These international projects matter because they not only help to make a modest but genuine difference, but they are also often life-changing, horizon-widening experiences for everyone involved.
I hope we can find a way to continue doing these trips in the future.
Years ago, Conservative activists would go to a summer school in some Cambridge college.
But I’d like us to think about how we can update that idea and make projects like these a way of attracting new people into politics, in a way that is meaningful and fun.
Closer to home, this country is facing very difficult times right now and there are a lot of people crying out for help.
So social action has never mattered more at home.
That’s why the session that you’ve just had on Economic Regeneration is so important.
During this economic downturn more and more people are losing their jobs.
Unemployment can be the hardest work in the world, and if left to fester it can be the source of many other social problems.
That’s why - I’m very proud to say - fifty of our candidates, MPs and councillors are setting up job clubs to support those who are trying to get back into work.
And it’s why we’re supporting this fantastic new jobs search engine.
WHY WE ARE DOING IT
But still, the question about social action remains: what’s the point of it all? Why do we as Conservatives believe in it?
I believe social action has a big role to play in fixing our broken politics - and building a new politics that inspires people to get involved.
Think about the four things that you hear over and over again about politics.
First, that politicians are only in it for themselves, and that they’re disconnected from their communities.
Second, that it is difficult to engage people in politics – especially young people.
Third, that “whichever party is in charge, nothing ever changes”.
And fourth, that - in spite of frustration at this lack of change and this lack of involvement – people often say that they’re unhappy with the kind of society we’re living in.
Social action has a direct answer to these key questions. Let me take each in turn.
FIXING OUR BROKEN POLITICS
First, restoring the standing of our politicians.
I don’t actually believe politicians are all in it for themselves.
Most give up a lot to contribute to public service.
A good way of demonstrating that is not just to talk about things, but to actively take part in doing things.
This has got to be one of the best antidotes we have to the collective shame over the expenses scandal.
Second, engaging people in politics.
Every politician is asked at every public meeting: “how do we get people – especially young people - involved in politics?”
One way is to broaden what politics is about.
If it’s about actually doing things in the community, then some people will be much more open to it.
Many people have got stuck into these projects who might have baulked at the idea of knocking on doors or delivering leaflets for a political party.
Third, altering the perception that “nothing ever changes”.
This is a new way of doing politics.
I believe the future of political parties should be about combining political action with social action.
This will help to demonstrate that change is possible if people can be encouraged to play their part.
Fourth, social action is an active demonstration of the kind of society we want to see.
Social action links to that very deep Conservative value of social responsibility - the belief that by acting together rather than just the state acting on our behalf, we can deliver real change.
We don’t automatically think about what the government should be doing in a top-down way - we start from a position of asking what each of us as individuals, as communities, should be doing.
So it’s only natural that we turn our social rhetoric into social action.
Of course, there is no panacea to fixing our broken politics.
But it’s my hope that the social action undertaken by the Conservative Party is the start of something much bigger in terms of changing the way we do politics in this country.
We mustn’t let politicians ruin politics.
We have to decentralise power from the political elite, to the man and woman on the street.
To do that the political elite need to take a step down, and the people on the street need to step up.
Social action projects are one important way of doing just that: candidates connecting with their communities, and being catalysts for the change people want to see.
In fact, I want social action to be as important to candidates as campaigning on the doorstep, and as important to the life of political parties as policy-making.
Social action represents the new politics we need in these times.
A politics that is relevant to people.
A politics of public service.
A politics of action.
That’s what we all want to see - and we need you to help us make it happen.